The Thinking 

Fashion Among the Homeless in the 1940s

September 15, 2011



THIS IS a Charles Cushman photo of three homeless men in Battery Park in June 1941. By today’s standards, these men are dressed up. It seems even homeless men once had wives to take care of them.

Looking at these other photos of New York in the 1940s, one sees how dress dignifies ordinary life.


                                                                                — Comments —

Buck O. writes:

All are clean shaven, all are wearing a suit jacket and hat, all have collared shirts; one is wearing a tie. These homeless men appear to dress better and display more pride and respect for their society, as homeless, than often does the current president as our Commander-in-Chief.
Laura writes:
The president looks as if he’s taking a casual stroll in the park. He’s in Arlington Cemetery on a day of official mourning.
A.M. writes: 

I was always told not to walk across the graves, as that would mean walking over the bodies, which was considered disprectful to the dead. So I was surprised to see Barack Obama seemingly walking over the bodies of the fallen. Perhaps the photo is misleading, and he isn’t actually walking across the graves.

However, I am Jewish, and have only been to Jewish funerals and cemeteries. Do Christians have a similar custom? Rather than walk across the graves, one is to walk in between them, parallel to the bodies. When one has to cut across, one would walk just ahead of where the next row began, so as not to walk on the dead.

I had the same exact thought when I saw that picture of the homeless men, after clicking through to the photos from Lawrence Auster’s page.

Laura writes:

I can’t tell from the photo whether he is walking on a path or over the graves. I think it is common practice in all cemeteries to walk on rows between the graves.

Greg Jinkerson writes:

This picture says so much about the rapid and near-total decline of concern among Americans about notions of beauty and decorum. The fact that just 50 years ago, homeless men were dressing with so much more formality and dignity than do the professional classes of today is a vivid symbol of how thoroughly the classes have been leveled. Thomas Fleming has come down excoriatingly upon the phenomenon of blue jeans in America, and especially the prevalence of denim among even middle-class male business men. His remarks about the subversive impact and ugliness of jeans has the hilarious sting of truth. I am in complete agreement with his assessment that jeans are the fashion embodiment of the revolution. He says,

My point against jeans is not that the wearer knows what he is doing but that he is making a statement, knowingly or not. Imagine the world before 1960, when, for example, my father rarely left the house without a jacket and tie and hat. As a merchant seaman and cowboy, he had learned the use of jeans, but he never wore them even for hunting and fishing. Now, you can say that times have changed and we have a right to change with them, and I shall cheerfully say, go your way and do as you like, my progressive friend. But do not, in the same instant as you are jettisoning all the forms of civilized life, tell me you are conserving anything. A supermarket is a place of business, a baseball park a place of entertainment. It is true that a market is not a bank and a baseball park not a ballroom or symphony hall, but neither is a proper place for work clothes. The terminology, by the way, is interesting. The historically normal word is trousers, though pants–derided by Ambrose Bierce–was common in America. I don’t know when slacks came in, but it did not used to be used, generally, for anything but rather informal trousers. These things tend to be regional in America. Pants tend to be East Coast, slacks more Middle American.

Jeans in themselves have obvious subversive qualities: they are not creased an need no ironing; they are better when aged and slightly frayed; dirty or clean–it hardly makes a difference. Thus the man putting on his jeans does not stop to ask himself if they are clean, pressed, in decent condition, appropriate to the occasion. So without being a Jerk, he is acting like one.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

Regarding Cushing’s photo of the three homeless men. The accompanying text makes it clear that these men are not homeless in the contemporary sense. They are identified as residents of a Battery “doss house,” a home for the dispossessed. I imagine that they are dispossessed because they are out of work, but their demeanor is not shiftless; they give the impression of being capable of work and perhaps also of being willing to work. The “doss house” is a vanished institution. It was a barracks for men, charging a few cents a night for a bed, a place with rules, which turned the men out during the day. 

The small city that I call home, Oswego, in Upstate New York on Lake Ontario, maintained until the late 1950s a “poorhouse,” where the indigent could find lodgings in exchange for work. There was an attendant farm and a workshop. The contemporary welfare state pays welfare recipients not to work – pays them, in many cases, more than menial laborers, who nevertheless take care of themselves, earn.

Laura writes:

I figured they weren’t homeless in the sense that they were living on the streets. But, they’re more dressed up than many well-paid white-collar workers today. 

Robin writes:

I couldn’t help but contrast the thoughtful and masculine style of even the poor man of the past with the confused perversity covering the male of today. The attached photo really says it all. 



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